Cal State vs. Cal Poly: What’s the Difference?

Check out the differences (and similarities) between these two types of CSU schools.

The California State University (CSU) system offers a wide variety of options to students. With so many campuses from which to choose, you may find that you’re confused as to what makes each one stand out. One of the key differences to understand is what differentiates a Cal Poly school from a typical Cal State school.

If you’re choosing between a Cal State and Cal Poly school, focus on what type of academic program you’re interested in pursuing.


The CSU system is comprised of 23 campuses. Of these, 20 are traditional state universities, two are “polytechnic” universities and one is a maritime academy. The state universities are often referred to as Cal State (like Cal State East Bay or Cal State Chico), while the polytechnic schools are commonly called Cal Poly (e.g. Cal Poly Pomona and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo). Here is the breakdown of CSU’s campuses in each category:

Cal State Universities:

Cal Poly Universities:

Maritime Academy:


The key difference between a Cal State school and a Cal Poly school lies in their academic offerings. Both Cal Poly schools focus on academic programs in applied sciences and technical arts. Students at CSU’s polytechnic universities generally go on to careers in the scientific or technical world. In addition, Cal Poly schools focus on major selection early; at the San Luis Obispo campus, students actually declare a major on their application and start taking courses in their major during freshman year. Most of the academic programs at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Pomona deal with engineering, sciences and mathematics. Each school also offers several agricultural and environmental programs focused on the scientific aspects of these fields.

Meanwhile, Cal State schools tend to offer a wider spectrum of academic program offerings. These campuses generally include a variety of humanities, arts and social sciences programs, in addition to the technological and scientific fields studied at Cal Poly universities.

It’s important to note that while Cal Poly schools focus on majors like engineering and sciences, you can also find these programs at Cal State schools. The difference here lies mainly in program reputation; generally, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Pomona academic programs are ranked highly in regional and national lists, while a similar field at a Cal State school may not be ranked.


Both Cal Poly schools have a competitive admissions process, with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo being slightly more selective. Choice of major can affect a student’s chances of admission since a limited number of students will be accepted for each program.

The competition for admissions at Cal State schools varies according to each campus. CSU has designated 16 of their 23 campuses as having higher admissions standards than the minimum admission eligibility standards for the CSU system. This is due to the large number of qualified applicants who apply to each of these campuses during the initial filing period. Of these, two are the Cal Poly campuses and the remaining 14 are Cal State campuses. The Cal State schools with higher admissions standards are as follows:

  • Chico
  • Fresno
  • Fullerton
  • Humboldt
  • Long Beach
  • Los Angeles
  • Northridge
  • Sacramento
  • San Bernardino
  • San Diego
  • San Francisco
  • San Jose
  • San Marcos
  • Sonoma

Some of these Cal State schools are also impacted by major restrictions in the same manner as the Cal Poly schools. Check out the latest details about CSU impaction to find out whether your preferred campus or major has a limited number of available spots.


CSU’s tuition rates are considered to be relatively affordable compared to many other public universities. The yearly tuition for CSU students is $5,472 per academic year for California residents (CSU charges non-residents an extra $372 per semester unit). The approximate cost of attending each CSU campus generally falls around $23,000 for on-campus students and $22,000 for off-campus students. Tuition costs do not differ between Cal State and Cal Poly campuses.

If you’re choosing between a Cal State and Cal Poly school, focus on what type of academic program you’re interested in pursuing. Keep in mind that you can apply to multiple campuses easily through the CSU application system with the exception of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which requires a separate application.

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